Lessons For The Gulf From Cordova

As residents of Cordova, Alaska, watched the horror of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill unfold in the Gulf of Mexico haunting memories emerged and reopened wounds from the 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (EVOS), said sociologist Duane Gill, Oklahoma State University.

In Cordova this summer wrapping up two decades of National Science Foundation-funded fieldwork documenting the long-term impact of the spill and subsequent legal battle with Exxon, Gill said the tragedy in the Gulf was traumatizing to most of the Alaskans he encountered.

"A lot of people couldn't watch much news coverage of the Gulf oil spill or talk about it without breaking down," said Gill. "What was unfolding there—at least for some people—was retraumatizing."

Cordova boat harbor - June 2009
Cordova boat harbor - June 2009

History Repeating Itself

For others, the ecological havoc of the Gulf spill presented an opportunity to share their experience and help Gulf residents in what promises to be a lengthy effort to become whole again.

And for Gill, the serendipity of having his career book-ended by two of the most devastating environmental and sociological catastrophes in American history is an unfortunate reminder that history can indeed repeat itself. In early August Gill will embark to Bayou La Batre, Alabama, to begin research similar to what he's done in Alaska.

"I had no idea that my EVOS research would last 21 years," said Gill. "My kids call EVOS the middle child of our family. I hope the Deepwater Horizon is the last child. It is very discouraging to see the BP spill; what I see is so similar to EVOS that it is hard to believe we have not come further than we have."

Lessons From Cordova

Drawing from his EVOS experience, Gill offered the following advice to those in the Gulf:

"Don't depend upon BP to make you whole. You have to make yourself whole. You cannot rely upon the corporations to make people whole and pay all legitimate claims."

Steeling Against Disaster

Cordova residents who fared the best in terms of their mental health are those who did not allow the litigation against Exxon to take over their daily lives, said Gill. Those who let the litigation process consume them during the past 20+ years suffered from stress, anxiety, crippling bureaucracy, and extreme disappointment.

To avoid a similar fate, Gill advised Gulf residents to "not to expect anything, just live your life. Find ways to not let the spill take over your life."

That's easier said than done for those whose livelihood was rooted in the very waters that now are slick with oil and void of the birds, fish, shrimp, and other life that was part of the Gulf’s intricate economy.

Prepare For A Lengthy Lawsuit

Litigation is necessary to get financial restitution, said Gill, but British Petroleum has deep pockets that can prolong a lawsuit, just as Exxon did.

"What EVOS showed was that money, big money, can buy 'justice;' a court decision," said Gill. "And BP has just as deep pockets as Exxon."

The people of the Gulf should not rely on BP to honor its commitments to make them whole, said Gill.

"It is legitimate to assume that the responsible party (BP) has only one interest and that is saving the company at whatever cost," he said. "They are there to make money."

Residents should mentally prepare for a lengthy fight and yet try not to let the spill and subsequent fallout commandeer their lives. Rather they should direct their energy toward their families and communities.

"These kinds of events really damage social capital," said Gill. "They damage social relationships. So the advice goes back to the golden rule: treat others as you want to be treated. Be nice to one another. Find ways to get along. Don't focus on the oil spill all the time."

Environmental Impacts

In addition to damaging social capital, the spill could wreck the environment, he said. In Alaska, "there is still a belief that the environment is not fully recovered," said Gill.

Residents point to herring, a critical commercial species that contributed between 30 and 40 percent of the economy prior to the spill and has not been a viable fishery for 14 years now.

Power of Community Activism

Finally, he advised, Gulf residents should actively advocate on their own behalf. Community activism to pressure BP for transparency and honing communication will empower residents and eliminate opportunities for the oil giant to dodge responsibility. Today's wired world facilitates that in a way that was unthinkable with EVOS.

"When the EVOS occurred in 1989 there were only three fax machines in Cordova. The Internet was in its infancy," said Gill. "We are so much more connected now and it is easier to keep the issues alive."

Struggle Over Information

This is critical because technological disasters like the Deepwater Horizon and EVOS create huge struggles over information. Individuals need access to trustworthy information about the resources they depend on. Gill said that BP has "bought up" scientists, putting them on the corporate payroll and creating a major conflict of interest that casts significant doubt on the scientific information.

Compared to Exxon in 1989, BP is—at least initially—being held more accountable. That's likely a result of the geographic prominence of the Gulf (Cordova was in a faraway place that many had never heard of) and the ubiquitous nature of social media.

In 21 years of research, Gill has watched individuals agonize over the Exxon Valdez spill and struggle to regain financial and social footing.

Given the gloomy findings from Cordova, what can Gill offer to the Gulf residents that may inspire some hope? He suggests that residents acknowledge up front that the life they knew may be over. Inevitably they will fight for restitution—and he urges them to—but they can sidestep some suffering if they can acknowledge and accept the radical transformation of their lives.

Moving Forward

"Often times [when] we talk about communities in disasters, we think of recovery," said Gill. "I am not sure that recovery is the correct term for communities affected by technological disasters. You cannot go back to the way it was before the oil spill. Rather it is a transformation."

In Alaska many residents still don't feel they have had closure and the subsequent stress and anger take mental and physical tolls on them, said Gill.

"It goes beyond financial," he said. "Most EVOS litigants feel they have not been treated justly or fairly. Any legal case that can drag out 14 years after a jury decision is not right. That's not what they were taught in school about how our democratic government and justice system works. Most are dissatisfied with the 2008 Supreme Court decision and the justice system. That has prolonged their suffering."

Therefore, resignation combined with a tenacious pursuit of justice will help Gulf residents get through this disaster, he said. And as they move forward, Gill will be there to document the process, bringing with him valuable observations and lessons gleaned from EVOS.--Rachel Walker